The RSA is developing a partnership with Museum Detox, a network for BAME professionals in the Museum and Heritage Sector, to encourage their members to join the RSA Fellowship. This is in light of their work inspiring change in the sector, and as part of our commitment to creating a more diverse and representative Fellowship. To mark this partnership RSA Fellow and co-founder of Museum Detox Priya Khanchandani tells us about the collective of activists inspiring change in the museums and heritage sector.
“Museum activism” might sound like a heady and glamorous vocation. It perhaps was the day we staged a flash mob at the Museum of London in 2016 and it drew the attention of the Guardian and several TV channels. And it is a little bit cool that we now hold our events in collaboration with the likes of Tate Modern, the Science Museum and Birmingham Museums. I pinched myself the day that Tristram Hunt talked to me at an event and was curious to learn of our work.
But Museum Detox, a collective I am proud to co-run and be a founding member of, began in a rather more mundane manner: with a group of us sitting in a pub. We came together because we were tired of the well-meaning “outreach” work carried out by museums that seemed largely to pay lip service to “diversity”. When would we see exhibitions and displays that convincingly and with authenticity reflected and spoke to diverse audiences? And when would the lack of staff diversity by acknowledged and begin to genuinely change? At first we twiddled our thumbs over G&Ts but soon a collective voice began to emerge.
Idealistically perhaps, we developed a vision that we could make a difference. It was worth a shot even though we didn’t know if we would ever be anything more than a support group. “Are we just preaching to one another?” I once said to my colleague Sara Wajid in the early days. “Perhaps for now, but one day they might just listen,” she said. Within a few years we had developed a sense of identity. The offer of a sponsored place on a training programme for activists by the New Economic Forum was a turning point. It was a signal that Museum Detox had begun to take on its own life.
Thanks to the dedication of those who run Museum Detox as volunteers, we have grown organically to become a collective of more than 160 BAME museum workers from across the country. Our meetings have evolved into quarterly-events co-organised with major museums, and although we have maintained a non-hierarchical model, our decisions our now guided by a more formal Steering Committee. Most significantly, we have become advocates for diversity in the museum sector; advisers and consultants to arts organisations concerned with issues of representation; as well as activists and regular speakers on pressing issues that matter.
Although the museum sector has made huge strides during the time since Museum Detox was established, there are still fundamental problems when it comes to diversity and audience representation. I have been campaigning for museums to change their narratives when it comes to dealing with Britain’s colonial past. Since researching the V&A’s India collection and then programming the UK-India Year of Culture, it has become clear to me that by and large, Empire is an aspect of British history that museums aren’t equipped to deal with. This is partly because as a society, we don’t seem to have fully come to terms with the atrocities that came with it, but also because many of our national museums were founded with colonial collections.
The fact that museums have now begun to talk about “decolonising” is a huge step forward. Thanks to the emergence of such a discourse, I have been able to inform the debate by speaking in numerous public forums. including events at the Wellcome Collection the Museum of Liverpool and, of course, at the RSA through their engage events where Fellows can pitch projects they’re working on to like-minded Fellows. However, acknowledgement is only the first step towards change. There is still a long way to go before our collective memory can come to terms with difficult histories and that they filter through into new and innovative museum practice. Museum Detox, in other words, still has plenty of work left to do.
On this note, we are pleased to announce our partnership with the Royal Society of Arts. We are delighted to accept the offer of fast-track membership to our members. We see this as an acknowledgement of the RSA’s liberal values and evidence of its aspiration to be at the forefront of positive social change. The RSA has recognised that being an effective force for such change is only possible through an increasingly diverse and representative Fellowship.
We can only hope that the rest of the sector will follow its lead.
Priya Khanchandani MA (RCA), MA (Cantab), FRSA, is a writer, design researcher and curator based in London. She is Deputy Editor of Icon magazine, a Trustee of Engage and a senior member of Museum Detox. Previously she worked on the acquisition of new objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum and as Head of Arts Programmes for India at the British Council.